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Chinese technology giant Huawei is in discussions to pay the London School of Economics to study “leadership” in the development of 5G technology. The LSE approved the project despite internal concerns about taking the controversial firm’s money.

Internal LSE documents seen by openDemocracy show that in September a committee that monitors the ethics of gifts and donations to the university approved a three-year project worth £105,000 funded by Huawei. The ethical approval was given despite staff concerns that the tech giant could present its links with LSE as an endorsement.

LSE has said that it has not made a final decision on whether to go ahead with the Huawei project but it is not the only concern about the university’s foreign funding to be raised recently.

Last year the university was forced to “put on hold” a proposed China programme. The would-be funder was a staunchly pro-Beijing venture capitalist who had previously defended the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, and the plan was shelved after the university’s academics expressed outrage.

Criticism of Huawei’s courting of LSE has sharpened after the company successfully lobbied to be involved in the UK’s new 5G mobile communications network, a move that infuriated Washington, which sees the company as a security risk.

MPs and a senior China specialist at LSE have heavily criticised the university and called for new procedures to protect academic freedom in the UK from Chinese influence and prevent attempts to silence international criticism of Beijing.

“Chinese companies are deliberately seeking well-respected UK universities to launder their reputation,” Labour MP Chris Bryant told openDemocracy. LSE would be “daft” to cooperate with Huawei, Bryant added.

‘Freeze out the academics’

The internal LSE documents seen by openDemocracy described the Huawei funding as “A proposed three-year consultancy project donation of £105k from Huawei.”

It explains: “The project is to provide a comprehensive study on how Huawei has internally supported innovation and product development in the past twenty years, focusing upon the transition from 2G infrastructure to technology leadership in 5G and governance, incentive and innovation at Huawei.”

LSE confirmed that its ethics committee had approved the Huawei transaction, which it described as a research contract. However, commercial discussions were continuing, it said, and no final agreement or payment had been made.

A spokesman said: “This proposed project remains under discussion. LSE has a clear ethics code which requires due diligence to be undertaken for all partnerships, which is kept under regular review.”

The documents also reveal that last June a group of four senior academics whose work focuses on Asia, met with LSE director Minouche Shafik to warn of “increasing risks to the School’s reputation of exposure to China.

“Particularly pressing is the need for a rigorous and meaningful review of the Confucius Institute for Business, the [Peking University] summer school… and the ethical implications of having joint MSc programmes with institutions in which academic freedom is increasingly constrained by the Chinese Communist Party,” the academics said in their letter.

Christopher Hughes, professor of international relations at LSE and a former director of the university’s Asia Research Centre, said that the university has continually failed to inform academics about its Chinese work.

“LSE’s approach is to freeze out the academics. The people who work on China are the last ones to be told about these projects,” said Hughes, who was among the academics who brought their concerns about LSE’s exposure to China to Shafik.

“The key thing is, ‘Do we have the right procedures in place to protect our integrity?’ My view is we don’t,” Hughes told openDemocracy.

Buying reputations and influence

Boris Johnson’s decision to allow Huawei to build part of the British 5G network as long as it is restricted to ‘non-core’ infrastructure was heavily criticised by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. A number of high-profile Conservative MPs have also voiced strong criticism.

The debate has drawn attention to the role that Chinese interests play elsewhere in the UK. Huawei itself has close links with a number of British universities, including a £25 million collaboration with the University of Cambridge.

Last year, Oxford placed a ban on accepting research grants from Huawei following “public concerns raised in recent months surrounding UK partnerships with Huawei”.

Commenting on openDemocracy’s LSE revelations, Stewart McDonald, the Scottish National Party defence spokesperson, said: “Huawei is an instrument of a repressive, communist government that has global reach when it comes to attempting to silence criticism of its actions at home.

“Universities must be especially cautious to defend academic freedom and ensure that they don’t allow themselves to be attack surfaces of the Chinese Communist Party in future – whether that’s economic, digital, informational or societal.”

Huawei told openDemocracy that the company is not “an arm of the Chinese state” and that it had been a victim of a “global propaganda campaign for the past fifteen or sixteen months.

“We have been operating in the UK for twenty years,” the spokesperson said. “We have partnerships with thirty UK universities.”

The LSE has a number of ventures in China, including joint academic degrees with Chinese universities such Peking University and Tsinghua University, and a long-running joint journalism degree with Fudan University. Chinese media is supervised by censorship authorities.

The internal documents seen by openDemocracy state that the LSE has been chasing philanthropic funding from China, and that it already receives funding for university research from the country. “Foundations and corporations from China have supported research and policy-oriented work among LSE academics,” the documents state.

“China and East Asia, in general, will be an important philanthropic market for LSE.”

LSE’s international tie-ups have been heavily criticised in the past. In 2011, a report by former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf found that the university was guilty of a “chapter of failures” over its links with the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya.

The school had accepted a £1.5 million gift from a foundation led by Gaddafi’s son Saif, a former student. The LSE’s commercial arm had also secured a contract worth £2.2 million to train Libyan civil servants.


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